Book Review: UK How-To Aims to Inspire Journalists

30 July 2015

By Toby McIntosh

Training journalists about the mechanics of using legal tools to access to information is the easy part.

Motivating them is the harder.

A new book by British journalist Matt Burgess does both. (Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, Routledge, 2015)

While focused primarily on the Freedom of Information Act in the United Kingdom and how best to use it, Burgess also delves into the value of FOI requests for journalists. It’s this element of his book that should be emulated in training materials worldwide.

Journalists’ low use of the 104 right to information laws around the world is widely recognized. National-level training of reporters and editors is not uncommon, but typically these are mini-law classes, empowering but not necessarily inspiring.

Burgess looks frankly at the many disincentives to making FOI requests, drawing on interviews with mostly UK journalists. For one thing, response times are measured in years, not the promised weeks of most laws. So there’s rational concern that the documents, even if eventually provided, will be yesterday’s news. Responses are rarely as complete as hoped, with governments liberally using exemptions to resist disclosure. Appeals are costly. In some places, pushy investigative journalists get punished.

And yet, stories based on FOI requests by journalists appear every day, all around the world. Searches run by FreedomInfo.org daily turn up such articles, at the local and national level.

The impact of these FOI-based revelations may not be easily measurable and probably is under-appreciated. Many journalism organizations now feature news and training about data journalism. A research boom focuses on open data. Access to information laws, however, remain the core tool for access to government information.

Useful Categories Provided

Burgess lights the way not only by providing examples but also by describing different types of FOI requests. The “round robin” technique, for example, means asking multiple agencies for information that can be used to make comparisons. He talks about fishing expeditions and requests for data, schedules, correspondence, meeting minutes and contracts. His chapters on “How to Utilise FOI” and “Case Studies” contain useful lists of tips. He points out the sometimes-overlooked importance of writing about government refusals to provide information.

Burgess provides a representational list of “common requests,” such as “parking fines and top earning care parks.” Creating more such lists, localized and updated, could have real value. Some journalists dig into the logs of other FOI requests to find ideas. All of this material has the potential to stimulate copycat requests and newsroom brainstorming.

There are good FOI training materials online, most focused on national laws. FOI training sessions for journalists occur occasionally. Just concluded was a five-day training organized by UNESCO in partnership with the Federation of Nepali Journalists. Promisingly, some journalism training, such as in Ghana and Tunisia, set participants to the task of making requests and writing stories. I’m unaware of any study on best curriculums or outcomes. Identifying successful uses of FOI and providing stimulating generic suggestions should play a larger role in FOI training.

Patrolling the FOI Beat

In his newsy blog, FOI Directory, Burgess, a freelance journalist, not only keeps up on UK FOI requests, but also reports on developments in FOI law and legislation.

His book does not dwell on what could be called “the FOI beat,” but his blog sets a strong example. He’s certainly not alone on the FOIA beat in the UK, but around the world, the media pays too little attention to how governments administer FOI laws, how courts interpret them and how legislatures want to change them, often for the worse. Fortunately many non-media groups help fill the gap. (Most of the sites that follow FOI news are listed in FreedomInfo.org’s FOI Blog Roll.)

There are countries where FOI developments are pretty big news. The Philippines media is all over the ups and downs of the long-running, highly politicized FOI bill saga. The Indian media writes a lot about RTI news. The Associated Press has excelled in the testing of FOI laws internationally and in the US.

But coverage is often uneven. In the United States, a FOIA reform bill was practically dead in late 2014 before the established press rode in, too late for the rescue. In Ghana, journalists dutifully cover press conferences by the FOI Coalition, but don’t press politicians to explain the perpetual demise of legislation they profess to support.

Burgess walks the walk; by covering the FOI beat in his blog and now by writing a solid training manual that sets a strong example to follow.

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